When Dr. Hans Messner received the Order of Ontario in 2015 for his contributions in advancing cancer treatment research, he humbly refused to wear his pin.
“I was just doing my job,” his wife, Sandy Messner, recalled him saying. Dr. Messner continued to do his job until he no longer could. He was instrumental in establishing the allogeneic bone marrow and stem cell transplant program at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, where he served as director. Despite retiring five years ago, he continued to work 12-hour days until last month, when he was admitted to palliative care.
“He was passionate about his work, absolutely passionate, and he would’ve done anything for his patients,” Sandy said. Dr. Messner died on July 24 at the age of 77 after battling bladder cancer. Over his 44 years of service at Princess Margaret, Dr. Messner became a pioneer for bone-marrow transplantation in Canada – one of the only known curative treatments for certain hematological cancers and leukemia. In the late 1970s, he was the first to perform a successful bone-marrow transplant in Ontario, according to Dr. Jeffrey Lipton, a medical oncologist at the Princess Margret Cancer Centre and long-time colleague of Dr. Messner.
Dr. Messner was born in Brunn, Czechoslovakia, on May 26, 1941 to August and Anna Messner. His family is of German descent and were transported to Fulda, Germany, at the end of the Second World War, where he grew up. He later studied medicine in Freiburg, Germany, and moved to Canada in 1969 to complete his PhD at the University of Toronto.
In Toronto, Dr. Messner studied under Dr. Ernest McCulloch, who was one of the fathers of stem-cell science and among the first to explore the benefits of bone marrow transplants for the treatment of patients with leukemia. Dr. Messner then went on to build on the field through his work at Princess Margaret, where about 300 people now receive transplant treatments a year, according to Dr. Ivan Pasic, a colleague of Dr. Messner’s.
A bone-marrow transplant is often the last resort for treatment because of the high risks associated with it, Dr. Pasic said. It involves the extraction of bone marrow cells from a donor, which are then transplanted into the patient to suppress the disease and restore their immune system. In the restoration process, however, the body can become vulnerable to basic infections that can turn deadly. Still, bone marrow transplants have proven to be an effective option for many.
"He was able to save the lives of some individuals who basically had no [other] options for treatment,” Dr. Pasic said. One of those individuals, Margaret Lynch, maintains she would not be alive today if it wasn’t for Dr. Messner. Ms. Lynch was diagnosed with an acute form of leukemia at age 30. After four months of chemotherapy, she suffered life-threatening infections and a seizure that put her in a coma for two days. She was told she would not be able to withstand any more chemotherapy.
"I like to think that when he got into that room, he saw me as a young woman and he wanted to do anything that he could do to help me,” Ms. Lynch said of the moment she met Dr. Messner. He took a risk and offered Ms. Lynch the option of a bone-marrow transplant. “Against all odds, the transplant worked,” Ms. Lynch said. She walked out of her isolation room 18 days later. It was 30 years ago, and the leukemia never returned.
Ms. Lynch remembered Dr. Messner as always being attentive and caring to his patients. “He always had time for questions, he always had time to explain,” she said. His positive attitude, she added, helped her find the courage to agree to the treatment that ultimately saved her life. “I needed him to be optimistic because I was undergoing a procedure . . . that seemed very likely that it would kill me.”
Dr. Pasic’s sister, Natasa Pasic-Knezevic, was a patient of Dr. Messner’s for 18 years. During their first appointment in 1996, Dr. Pasic recalled sitting with Dr. Messner for two hours.
“All the clinic staff had left, the nurses had left, the lights were off everywhere around the clinic,” Dr. Pasic said. “But he stayed with us the entire time until we completely ran out of questions to ask."
“It seemed like he had all the time in this world for us,” said Dr. Pasic, who went on to shadow Dr. Messner during his studies and recently became a certified oncologist. His sister’s experience in Dr. Messner’s care inspired Dr. Pasic to pursue oncology. “He was a very valuable mentor, he taught me many things in my professional life that I use on a daily basis,” Dr. Pasic said.
Ms. Pasic-Knezevic survived her cancer, and recently climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. She dedicated her climb to Dr. Messner, Dr. Pasic said.
Dr. Messner has received many accolades during his long career. Alongside the Order of Ontario, he was one of only 13 recipients of the American Society of Blood and Marrow Transplantation lifetime achievement award, given to those who made significant clinical and scientific contributions to the field. But Sandy, who is an oncologist specializing in breast cancer, says one of her husband’s proudest achievements was receiving the Gerald Kirsh Humanitarian Award at Princess Margaret, which he was nominated for by his patients.
"He was a friend to anyone,” she said of Dr. Messner’s time at Princess Margaret. “It didn't matter who you were and what you did."
"It doesn’t matter if it was the person coming in to clean his room at the hospital . . . or the head of the hospital,” Ms. Lynch said. “He’s just a guy who does the right thing.”
Another proud achievement for Dr. Messner, his wife said, was receiving a platinum bicycle helmet in 2017 for 10 years of participation in the Ride to Conquer Cancer, an annual event in which cyclists ride more than 200 kilometres to raise money for cancer research at Princess Margaret. That year’s ride would be his last.
Sandy said her husband encouraged many of his patients to ride along with him, as he believed it was an important step in their healing process. Ms. Lynch was one of those patients.
“I’m much slower, but he waited for me at the finish line” for around three hours, Ms. Lynch said. “He just wanted to be there and celebrate the fact that I was still there and still able to do it.”
Dr. Messner rode with the Heme Team, a word-play on hematology. Last year, his children, Anne, Kristy, Andrew and Erica accompanied him on his last ride. The team will continue to ride next year in honour of Dr. Messner, Ms. Lynch said.
In addition to his work at Princess Margaret, Dr. Messner sat on several boards and volunteered his time to provide advice on cancer research internationally, including in his home country of Germany. During his last months, Sandy received e-mails from people around the world highlighting Dr. Messner’s influence on their lives. "He had such an impact everywhere he went,” she said.
In his spare time, Dr. Messner spent many weekends at the cottage with his family, Sandy said. He built furniture for them – dressers, tables – in his garage-turned-workshop. He leaves his wife, Sandy, four children and six grandchildren.
Sandy admired her husband’s dignity and strength in his final days. “[He] always smiled, right to the end,” she said. Dr. Santhosh Thyagu, a long-time colleague of Dr. Messner, said he maintained an open-door policy at the hospital, even near the end of his life.
“He welcomed anyone that visited him and when they left, always made it a point to thank them for visiting,” Dr. Thyagu said. Ms. Lynch said she thanked Dr. Messner once, but he repeated his well-known phrase, “I’m just doing my job.”
“I did a job, too," Ms. Lynch said, “but not many of us get to save lives.”